The ocean floor is one of the last true frontiers of the unexplored and unexplored. Even as the world above crumbles with changes in global warming and human displacement, the ocean floor remains such a desolate and inaccessible place that it remains relatively undisturbed. There is no guarantee that this will remain the case.
Buried underwater are in-demand metals needed to scale up the development of batteries, which are themselves critical to technologies like electric vehicles. In the case of electric vehicles, they could help us reduce emissions and move towards the 1.5°C warming scenario set by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even close to pre-industrial levels. However, the sources of the metals on which these EV batteries depend are highly problematic. As a result, the international community is racing to finalize a set of regulations that will allow innovation while protecting one of the world’s last relatively undisturbed ecosystems. It is a race to implement greener systems and mitigate their impact.
In November, the International Seabed Authority — a United Nations agency primarily responsible for regulating mineral resources in international waters — held its 27th meetingday The meeting fleshed out its plan to regulate and approve the development of deep sea mining operations. While exploration operations are already underway to provide a proof of concept for the technology used to extract the valuable mineral, commercial mining law regulations came into force in July. Large-scale mining operations appear to be soon to follow. To speed up this process and benefit from the benefits that a large supply of metals brings to the electric vehicle market, regulations and technologies are evolving in tandem.
That’s good news for proponents of electric vehicles. Demand for cleaner, more efficient vehicles is soaring — EVs will account for 5.6% of the overall car market by the second quarter of 2022, up from 2.7% in the second quarter of 2021. Bloomberg Market Analysis predicts that once electric vehicles account for about 5 percent of the market, it will mark a shift toward viable mass adoption. Bottom line: EV production is ramping up rapidly, requiring sufficient metal supplies to meet demand.
But some countries and companies have publicly expressed their concerns about the looming July implementation deadline, arguing that neither the ISA nor mining companies can definitively say that mining operations will not lead to lasting degradation of the seafloor. They called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until research can catch up with the technology. The World Wildlife Fund has spearheaded an effort to get some of the biggest corporations and international heads of state to speak out against deep sea mining. “International Seabed Authority – which, paradoxically, is responsible for licensing the DSM [deep-sea mining] While protecting the oceans from their impacts, it has proven not to be fit for purpose,” WWF wrote. “We urgently need a change of direction before irreparable damage is caused. The July deadline, set when Nauru triggers the U.N.’s “two-year clause” in 2021, is aimed at speeding up negotiations with the U.S. The approval process for commercial mining operations is under way with Canadian start-up Metals Co. If the ISA fails to meet the deadline if no other course of action is in place, the company will be free to mine deep sea without the organisation’s oversight.
Much of the dangerous deep-sea mining is likely to take place in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, or CCZ, a 4,500-mile-long fissure in the ocean floor. Located between Hawaii and Mexico, the CCZ is a huge reserve of some of the most needed metals for greening. Nestling this fissure are trillions of polymetallic nodules, which look like balls of metal deposits and contain nickel, cobalt, copper, zinc, lithium and manganese.
Currently, these metals mainly come from onshore mines that cause environmental damage, such as ground instability and harm to native species, and often employ inhumane labor standards. Additionally, current mining practices cannot keep up with the rapidly growing market. Against this backdrop, companies have set their sights on the CCZ and its seemingly limitless supply of required metals, where feasibility and environmental impact tests have paved the way for future commercial deep-sea mining operations. For example, Swiss subsea construction company Allseas has partnered with Canadian start-up Metals Co, and the Hidden Gem vessel will undergo its first test run in 2022. The system collects polymetallic nodules from the seafloor, along with a small amount of sediment. The nodules are then sucked back to the surface through a series of pipes, and the remaining debris and seawater are returned to the CCZ. The test run removed more than 4.5 metric tons of nodules.
While the technology surrounding deep sea mining is advancing rapidly (in an effort to deliver metals as quickly as possible), our understanding of the impact of these activities has not kept pace. In a survey, 88% of experts in the field stated that “currently there is too little information to minimize environmental risks and ensure protection of the marine environment in the face of large-scale deep seabed mining.” Only 5% were positive Supports the idea that there is enough information to make an informed decision about what could adversely affect the CCZ.
One of the key risks is the biodiversity of the CCZ—we know very little about the species that exist there. About 80 percent of the ocean remains unobserved, and scientists estimate that fewer than 10 percent of species are classified. Habitat destruction, sound and light pollution, and sedimentary clouds are all potential threats to already fragile ecosystems and species deep in the ocean. Connectivity, or interactions between populations, is not well studied in the deep ocean, and we don’t know how disruption in one species or system will affect others. There is also limited understanding of deep-sea variability, or the “natural spatiotemporal trends” of seafloor ecosystems, a key factor in resilience.
In a recent review of the literature on the environmental impacts of deep sea mining, researchers warned against adopting new regulations or awarding contracts until there is “sufficient information to make science-based and data-driven decisions.” A major concern is that this is a unique ecosystem that is already struggling to survive the warming waters – and that further damage may be irreversible. In order to ethically mine the seabed, extensive testing must be conducted to exhaustively demonstrate that impacts to species and ecosystems are minimal and reversible. While businesses were able to attract funding and quickly commit resources to research and development of tools to keep the oceans relatively intact, it will take time for the scientific community to properly investigate and scrutinize what the International Seabed Authority may approve in July. During this period, 167 member states and the European Union drafted proposals for seabed exploration and development. Keeping up with these guidelines will not be enough: In the rush to slow sea-level rise and monetize extremely valuable and untapped resources, political pressure will conflict with conservation.
Meanwhile, the corporate side of deep sea mining is hitting full steam ahead. “We’re building a world where metals aren’t mined and dumped,” the metals company said, “instead they’re rented out and returned.” In the company’s plans for a nodule fuel future, metals would be removed and put to use, then become Part of the cycle where they can be recycled more efficiently than they currently are. The company is developing the recycling technology and its mining equipment — but it posted a net loss of $27.9 million, according to its financial reporting period ending Sept. 30, 2022. If things continue in this direction, it only has enough cash left on hand to operate for about nine more months, which is a few months later than expected when the official ISA rules come into effect. There are other smaller corporate players in the space, but they do not have access to the same pre-emptive testing opportunities and are therefore further behind in making mining practices sustainable.
The clock ticked down quickly. If the new rules come into effect in July, highly unpredictable mining methods will reach the depths of the ocean. Reducing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels is undoubtedly a key part of the fight against climate change.But it’s not worth betting the health of the ocean risk.
Future Tense is a collaboration between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University to study emerging technologies, public policy, and society.